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Beauty From The Battlefield: 10 Pieces Of Trench Art

By Paul Cornish

‘Trench art’ is a term used to describe objects made from the debris and by-products of modern warfare. Trench Art is usually associated with the First World War, although similar items have been produced in other conflicts too.

Most trench art was made by servicemen to pass the time when not in the front line. While much of it was simple and amateurish, the production of some examples required metalworking skills or workshop facilities. Prisoners of war, faced with a constant battle against boredom, produced similar items.

Many examples of trench art were also made by local civilians for sale to soldiers. This manufacture often drew upon traditional local crafts, such as metalworking or lace-making. Despite the danger from these potentially deadly items, many civilians would collect debris from battlefields to transform into souvenirs. This industry continued after the war, with trench art-type objects being created for sale as souvenirs to the visitors to battlefields and cemeteries, and such items are still manufactured to this day.

  • 1. Tapestry belt created by a serviceman

    This tapestry belt is an example of needlework created by a serviceman. It has been decorated with tapestry work to spell out the name of its maker, W A Holland, and the ship in which he served, HMS Minotaur.

    EPH 1720

  • 2. Decorated shell cases

    Decorated shell cases are perhaps the most common type of trench art. This is one of a pair, engraved by a British soldier. The design was taken from a stencil, which was purchased from a Belgian soldier for five Woodbine cigarettes. The design was transferred to the shell case using iodine. A bent nail was then used to engrave the design into the metal.

    EPH 3296

  • 3. Crucifix, post 1918

    The construction of this piece of trench art suggests that it was made after the First World War. It was probably produced for sale to battlefield tourists. However, the overall general conception of the crucifix closely reflects 'real' religiously-inspired trench art of the First World War.

    EPH 1915

  • 4. Shell case, worked into an engraved tobacco jar

    A British 13-pounder shell case, worked into an engraved tobacco jar by Turkish prisoners of war in the Middle East. The man who decorated it evidently possessed considerable metalworking skills; it is elaborately engraved with Islamic decorative motifs and calligraphy. Sections of the design are enhanced with an inlay of copper and silver wire.

    EPH 3245

  • 5. Ring

    Trench art ring owned – and possibly made - by Sergeant W Skinner, Royal Garrison Artillery (RGA) during the First World War. Skinner was awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal for ‘conspicuous good work and fearless devotion to duty during thirty months' active service’.

    EPH 5916

  • 6. Lighter

    A handmade lighter made from a German cartridge case.  Some examples of trench art required a high degree of skill and creativity.

    EPH 985

  • 7. French shell case

    This decorated shell case is an example of French First World War trench art from the Western Front. The design beaten into it features the name 'Cote 304' -a reference to one of the features of the Verdun battlefield.

    EPH 3146

  • 8. Match box cover

    Trench art matchbox cover made of brass and decorated with the cap badge of the Royal Canadian Artillery (RCA). Its owner’s initials ‘ASM’ are engraved on the reverse.

    EPH 4285

  • 9. Rings made by convalescing soldiers

    Four aluminium trench art rings, showing the various stages of development, from the fragment of German aluminium nose cone through to completed ring decorated with an eagle from a German button. These rings were made by recuperating British soldiers.

    EPH 4364

  • 10. Jug

    Trench art jug created by a sapper in the Royal Engineers whilst he was manning an underground telephone exchange in the Ypres district during the First World War. The jug was made from a British 18-pounder Mark II brass shell case.

    EPH 3497